Friday, 19 October 2012

Happiness and the Basket Case

How happy can a person be with making a basket? TV historian Ruth Goodman was almost childishly gleeful with her achievement on the BBC’s Wartime Farm this evening, making a basket to carry messenger pigeons. Maybe I’m a bit of a ‘basket-case’ myself, but I know that happy basket-weaving feeling. Even if it did cause aching thumbs, I was really pleased with making my first basket in about two years on a course at Denny Abbey the other weekend, taught by a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, Sandra Barker.  

It’s the first time I’ve worked under Sandra: in previous years I’ve had great fun working with coloured willows and dogwoods on courses with Mary Butcher at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. Teachers all have their different approach to things but share one thing in common – their passion for their craft. You can see it makes them happy transferring their skills to others, and it makes us happy to receive those skills, and to end up with a tangible achievement we can take home. It’s nothing to be hidden: we’re not after showing off, we’re just pleased to have made something worthy and useful. 

Psychologists recognise the primeval need we have to make things: it makes us feel, as one article says “vital and effective”. It gives us back our place in the world and the feeling that we as individuals can effect positive change. No wonder textiles and basketry were once the mainstay of medical Occupational Therapy. Modern Occupational Therapy has come a long way from the offerings of the 1960s while the value of craftwork too has been much better quantified. The Crafts Council’s report on the economic social value of makers says they gain from their craft “ confidence, self-esteem and a sense of value,” and that young people engaging with craft gain “a sense of autonomy and control”.  

Control isn’t exactly what I’d call the construction phase of my basket but it made the grade in the end. Letting go control is more possible weaving with other materials, though the collection of materials I’ve got on the loom at the moment are probably more controlling me than the other way around! Yet, as the Institute for Employment Studies points out about craft graduates, people in our sector carry with them: “ persistence, self-motivation and belief, professional attitude, a strong work ethic and dedication to creative practice”, which should at least see me through the battle with the mohair in the warp.

Whichever walk of creative or business life you choose, such attributes are to be proud of. So here’s wishing you the joy of process, persistence and positive outcomes created by your own hands this week.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Serendipitous Silk Scrunching

I was reminded in the Jekka’s Herb Farm newsletter this week that my gardening heroine, Gertrude Jekyll, once said gardening teaches you “patience, watchfulness, ...industry and thrift...and above all..entire trust.” I certainly charged off to the Boos’ Attic dye workshop last Saturday full of trust in our teacher Clare, determined to be as industrious as possible and achieve as much as I could with thrifty use of the dye colours, but allowing excitement totally to override the patience and watchfulness bit! I couldn’t wait to get started, especially as I’d been allowed to bring along some silk to try dyeing after we’d finished with the initial dyeing of yarns.

I’d been visited by a little serendipity with silk at the last workshop. A few twists of the silk and a few dobs of colour produced the most amazing effects with the colours running into each other and tumbling over the white space. This time my excitement had been wound up (pardon the expression) by reading articles on different types of Shibori dyeing. The library had a copy of Elfriede Moller’s book, which amongst other techniques shows how to iron, block and tie fabrics for Shibori dyeing. I’d also seen an article in Ashford’s magazine The Wheel (issue 21), about Arashi Shibori, delivering texture as well as effect. Only trouble was I didn’t have a drain pipe of the right size, nor some of the other kit suggested, so it took a little thinking outside the box to come up with alternatives.

I wound a couple of silk ties around big stones and wrapped them with crochet cotton; silk scarves were ironed like Origami shapes in different triangles and pleats, then rolled and scrunched up with the cotton. And the small silk hankies got tied up and strung up every which-way to see what happened. As to adding the colour, I did a mixture of random dabbing here and there, squirting some through the ends of the silk rolls towards the middle, and even a little over-dyeing. Happily the Spirit of Serendipity was with me again, and the first round of results are here to see.

One of the kind ladies on the workshop said one of the resulting scarves reminded her of “cathedral windows”. I was fascinated on that one by the feathering effect caused by the pleating, rolling and wrapping with the crochet cotton. Another one reminded me of a child’s kaleidoscope, with the coloured glass changing as it falls about into new patterns. The other two, in pinks, purples and browns, look as if I’ve been printing with autumn leaves, though in truth it’s just down to patterns of scrunching and tying.  To make the colour penetrate more evenly maybe I need to deploy some of Gertrude’s ‘patient watchfulness’ and be a bit more thoughtful about where I pleat and tie in relation to what I want to achieve.

Yet whilst I’d love to know more about Shibori techniques, part of me just wants to enjoy the randomness of simply ‘having a go’. That’s what I love about fibre-related crafts. They allow every one of us to express ourselves, liberate our spirits, and learn new things, whether by luck or by teaching, but in both cases without feeling desperately harnessed to “the right way” of doing things. Here’s wishing you a liberating week of expanding your creative horizons and challenging your own perception of the status quo.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Poetry, Power and the P Drive

Thank goodness it’s National Poetry Day today. My computer ‘troubles’, which have led to major upheavals in the past few days, are now over thanks to the heroic and willing cadre of two sons and husband, far better at gadgety things than I am. Collectively they managed to rescue my P Drive, comprising all my pictures, my e-mail, and most importantly, everything related to the day job. I can’t pretend to have been my calmer self during the process, but my spirits were empowered by Walter D Wintle’s poem ‘Thinking’, which echoes my own mantra when faced by life’s little obstructions, namely: “I will win.”   

I only came across 'Thinking'  this summer. It was one of the ‘Winning Words’ series on BBC Radio 4, airing around the time of the London Olympics. It’s from Walter Sieghart’s anthology of the same name, which I promptly put on my birthday list and was privileged to receive. I treasure my poetry books, many of them going back into childhood and reflecting the seasons, like “Come little leaves” by American poet George Cooper. Cooper’s lifespan must have crossed over with another of my favourites, Robert Louis Stevenson. His poem ‘Autumn Fires’ from ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ is highly evocative of this season of ‘..mists and mellow fruitfulness,’ as Shakespeare put it.  

There’s a fascinating reproduction of the 1895 edition of ‘AChild’s Garden of Verses’ online, which will interest to anyone with a liking for or social history. It’s the vibrant colours in ‘Autumn Fires’ that tempt me first into the garden and then back to the loom with a head full of ideas. Matching nature’s glory isn’t easy but I pay my woolly homage each autumn, working with whatever materials I can find. Mohair (from Angora goats) isn’t easy to weave with but it’s worth the perseverance. It gets all stuck together in the warp on a rigid heddle loom but with careful handling you can get around it. And it has its own powerful effect on texture, changing the whole feel of the piece, making it misty, soft and desirable. Fibre fashions come and go, but for me weaving is all about texture, and, at this time of year, creating a fusion of colour worthy of the average autumn leaf.

I doubt if there have been many poems about natural fibres, goats or sheep for that matter being recited during National Poetry Day, but if anyone has any to share, about spinning, weaving or any other fibre crafts, you’re welcome to let us all know. I saw some good Haiku coming through during the day via Telegraph Books’ poetry tweets, and what’s more, to reinforce the stereotype of the British being eccentric, I gather today saw the investiture of the first Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, working with the Canals & River Trust. Perhaps Jo will create some poetry around sheep in misty fields on summer mornings as life beside the canal towpath starts to awaken – maybe we ought to ask if such‘requests’ are allowed?

I see the Poetry Society now has a ‘PoetryPrescription’ critical review service, to encourage better poetry writing. But poetry, like art and textiles, is highly subjective, and besides which I for one am far too introverted to send in any of my scribblings for comment! Poets are brave people, distilling the essence of their person and experiences into a few lines and putting it out there for everyone to see. Maybe we should all take a metaphorical leaf out of their collective book and indulge in a little more self-expression in our constrained modern lives. Here’s wishing you a powerfully liberating week with your creative exploits - and one that’s completely techno-trouble-free.